It’s the relationship that forms the basis of any compelling restaurant – the chef and the producer. To celebrate tomorrow’s delicious. Produce Awards 2016, SHANNON HARLEY looks at three strong culinary kinships
The secret to every top chef’s success.
If you thought a chef’s best friend was a sharp knife, think again. The most important tool in the modern-day chef’s kit is their phone, so they can be in constant contact with their other halves – the producers, growers and suppliers on the frontline supplying their kitchens.
With talk of trust, loyalty and respect, the relationship between chef and provedore resembles a kind of food-inspired romance – or “promance” as we like to say.
At the heart of the union is a passion for supporting ethical and sustainable practices, with a view to ensuring the future of food. Here, we look at three of the industry’s most entwined relationships.
SHANNON BENNETT & MARK EATHER
“Fish from a net is unsustainable – no top chef in Australia should be using trawled seafood,” says Shannon Bennett, of Vue de monde in Melbourne. That’s why Bennett and other restaurant luminaries rely on Mark Eather for much of their seafood. Eather practises a sustainable, hand-caught approach to fishing – the opposite of the mass-catch model.
Eather uses the traditional Japanese ike jime method, which aims to catch quickly, kill quickly and chill quickly, so there is no stress on the animal.
“What you get in terms of quality compared to trawled seafood is a million times better,” says Bennett, who has workedwithworked with Eather for a decade. The two were introduced by
Neil Perry, who was admiring Eather’s line-caught snapper at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. Ironically, it came from Australia.
At that point the wild fisherman mostly sourced his products for Japanese clients. Perry spread the word back home, recruiting Bennett and Kylie Kwong, who banded together to support the outspoken fisherman so he could operate in Australia.
Eather is currently working on a sustainable fish farm of the future with experimental ocean ponds in Tasmania and Queensland.
“Aquaculture is the way forward,” says Bennett. “Yes he has to charge three times as much for his product, but it’s incredible. If we don’t support wild fishermen we’ll be looking back and talking about what fish used to look like in the very near future.” The pair is in touch three or four times a week, and Bennett occasionally goes out on the boat with Eather.
““It’s It’s a relationship based on trust, total trust,” says the chef. ““Trust Trust comes with knowledge and he’s given me somuchso much
RIGHT Tim Johnstone with Peter Gilmore on the Johnstone farm in the Hawkesbury. BELOW Franklin chef David Moyle and seafood specialist James Ashmore.
DAVID MOYLE & JAMES ASHMORE
At the esteemed Hobart restaurant Franklin, the menus are defined by a holy trinity of producers: market gardener Paulette Whitney from Provenance Growers, Bruny Island pig farmer Ross O’meara and seafood specialist James Ashmore.
“The restaurant wouldn’t exist without them,” says chef David Moyle. “I believe that producers are more important than chefs. Without them I have nothing to work with.”
Qualified diver Ashmore started in the oyster game 10 years ago, but now supplies Moyle with a range of seafood such as kelp, sea urchins, periwinkles and lesser known fish, such as the stripey trumpeter.
“We aim to be sustainable at all levels,” says Ashmore. “But the fun bit is working with passionate fishermen to supply chefs who care and understand you can’t get the same seafood 52 weeks a year.”
Resourceful chefs like Moyle change their menus depending on what delicacies their producers source.
“This can lead to inconsistency on a menu – for instance James called today to say the weather was too rough for the fishermen – but to me that inconsistency is brilliant.”
At the same time, the producer knows the advantages of these close relationships.
“If they have something special they’ll come to you, and you’ll just take it all so they’re not left with excess of a finite product,” adds Moyle.
He isn’t the only chef under Ashmore’s spell. When Noma chef Rene Redzepi visited Tasmania he was “blown away by him”.
Sashimi-grade tuna and precious crayfish might be in demand in some circles, but Ashmore proffers sea urchins, which have a shelf-life of two days, wakame, a Japanese weed found along the coast, and periwinkles, a byproduct from abalone dives.
“We can go through 15kg of periwinkles in a weekend,” says Moyle. “They are cheap, sustainable and total umami bombs. Using them is a point of difference for me and a way to support James commercially.”
PETER GILMORE & TIM & LIZ JOHNSTONE
It’s fitting that a chef as acclaimed as Peter Gilmore, at the helm of Sydney’s Quay and Bennelong restaurants, has an exclusive relationship with his farmers. The chef, renowned for his use of rare and heirloom vegetables, herbs and edible flowers, has worked with Tim and Liz Johnstone from Johnstone’s Kitchen Gardens for the last five years. “We have quite a unique relationship,” he says. “They grow to order for me, so we have a bespoke farming arrangement.” Unusually, it’s all barter. The Fink Group (which owns Bennelong and Quay, as well as Firedoor and Otto in Sydney and Brisbane) invested in the Johnstone’s farm in Sydney’s Hawkesbury region when they were starting out, agreeing to be paid back through produce.
“It really worked for them and for us. You have to go that extra mile if you want something special,” says Gilmore.
So what comes first, the dish or the vegetable? Gilmore works on both simultaneously.
“Last year I grew a yellow Romesco cauliflower in my own garden and fell in love with the flavour, but I didn’t have a dish in mind.”
Other times he’ll ask the Johnstones to cultivate a specific vegetable for a dish. Sometimes the farmers will surprise the chef with an experimental crop, such as a cone-shaped cabbage that Gilmore pickled so the variegated red and white leaves turned pink.
It is a relationship underpinned by regular communication.
“Tim can be committing 500m of his vegetable space to a particular variety, so I agree to buy a certain quantity. Then we have to succession plant so it’s not all ready at once. That way I can keep a dish on the menu for a couple of months.”
The farmer is not only working with the chef, he has to think like the chef. For this power couple, that yields a crop of new ideas. Read about the winners of the Produce Awards in October delicious. on sale September 15.